Ethical dilemmas are part and parcel of veterinary practice, and something we deal with on a daily basis, writes Paul Freeman.
A common dilemma is the vexed question of when to terminate an animal’s life on welfare grounds, ie deciding when it is not kind to let an animal go on living.
This is a decision we face in all branches of practice, whether it is on the farm, in the stable or with much-loved pets.
A recent case reminded me (as if I needed reminding) that the decision is not always easy to make.
The patient was a border collie called Ben, who had worked for his living on a smallholding, but was very much part of the family and much loved by his owners.
One day, while working the small flock of sheep, Ben suddenly collapsed.
He could still stand on his front legs, but had completely lost the use of his back legs.
He was rushed to the Rothbury surgery, where X-rays revealed a severe prolapse of an inter-vertebral disc (a slipped disc), which was compressing the spinal cord.
Emergency surgery offered the only chance of recovery, so Ben was referred immediately to a specialist centre for a major operation.
Ben came through the operation well, but unfortunately it failed to restore any feeling or movement in his hind legs: The damage to the spinal cord had been too great.
Ben was in no apparent pain, so his owners were keen to nurse him at home in the hope that some function would return.
I had grave reservations about whether it was kind to continue, especially as Ben needed his bladder catheterising twice daily.
But I could see how well Ben was being looked after.
I had to admit that every time I examined him he seemed bright and happy, and in no apparent distress.
After several weeks, we all had to accept that Ben was showing no signs of improvement.
Euthanasia was again discussed but Ben’s owners persuaded me that Ben was still enjoying life and that they were more than competent to manage the long-term nursing required.
Furthermore, they had found a company in America that made a sturdy ‘off-road’ buggy that would support Ben’s hind-quarters and hopefully enable him to get around the small farm on his own.
I was aware of other paraplegic dogs that had been managed in this way, some with more success than others.
But I was prepared to give the idea my blessing, as Ben seemed as determined as his owners that he was not ready to throw in the towel.
The buggy duly arrived and, after some adjustments, Ben quickly got the hang of it.
I was amazed two weeks later to see video footage on the owner’s mobile phone, of Ben on his buggy racing down a rough farm track alongside their other (able-bodied) dog, both of them barking and enjoying each other’s company.
That was over two years ago.
Ben still makes the most of his unconventional mobility, and I can honestly say that, because of the dedication and unstinting care of his owners, he has a good quality of life.
I still think that Ben is an exception, and that for the majority of dogs euthanasia is the kindest option for permanent hind-limb paralysis.
But in Ben’s case, I think we made the right decision to give him a chance.
I know that not everyone might agree.